The Contradictory Runaway Train (1985)

runaway1I confess to being rather nostalgic whenever I see the Cannon Films logo animation/fanfare music before the opening credits of a film. Most of the films were very bad but its still a particular period of films that I can look back at with fondness. Usually they carried the kind of bad-but-cool action film vibe that The Expendables movies aspire to. One-note movies starring Charles Bronson or Chuck Norris, say what you like about them, you usually knew where you stood with their films and their no-nonsense kind of indie film making. Cannon were masters of the b-movie, so bad their films, looking back, appropriate the definition of cool that Tarantino has to work at achieving but for them was perfectly natural.

Runaway Train is that rarest of things- a good Cannon Films movie. Granted, it has many of the staples of  a Cannon production; dodgy acting, stilted scripting, limited production values. The scenes in the control room, in particular, are painfully bad with poor dialogue and rotten acting from all involved (or are stunningly realistic/down to Earth, I’m not sure which) . The scenes on the train are much better, if only because they centre on the films main plus-points, the fabulous leads, but much else of the film feels staged and awkward. Part prison escape movie, part action movie, part nihilistic journey into oblivion, its a strange mix. Maybe that’s due to it being based originally on a Japanese project (a script by Akira Kurosawa, no less), or it being directed by a Russian (Andrei Konchalovsky) with his nation’s own particular sensibilities, and being produced by a company renowned for its simple exploitation fare.  Yet the film also has these great iconic performances by its two main stars, great effects (practical and miniature) and a multi-layered script bordering on art house level sophistication.

runaway2There are all sorts of contradictions regarding Runaway Train.  A particular fascination is the dangerous convict Oscar `Manny’ Manheim (Jon Voight). Here is a far deeper and nuanced character than might be expected in a film like this. Manny is a  man simply born out of his own time, reminding me of Esau Cairn from Robert E Howard’s Almuric. A hero to his fellow prisoners and a dangerous, savage criminal to normal society, Manny always seems at war with the world around him- he has the manner of a wounded animal hitting out at everything. At the start of the film he has spent three years welded to his cell, a convicted bank-robber in a bitter feud with the prisons sadistic warden Rankin (who is actually dedicated to seeing Manny dead, ideally at Rankins own hands). And yet there is a scene later on the train, when Manny tries to persuade fellow-escapee Buck not to waste his life in criminal activities, but to instead get a job – even the lowest and most menial of jobs. Buck, aghast at the notion, asks Manny if he could do that and Manny sadly replies, despairingly, “I wish I could.” Manny knows he is not that kind of man, but he wishes he could be. Instead, the runaway train is hurtling Manny to his oblivion, and by films end Manny is finally at peace with that, embracing it as he races through the Alaskan wilderness. Suddenly an exploitation prison-escape movie has become a work of poetic grandeur, complete with soaring Antonio Vivaldi music. Its an utterly brilliant transformation.

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